I happen to like the original TRON. It’s nothing if not dated, but the experience of seeing the film in the theaters back in 1982 must have been a special one. The filmmakers threw themselves earnestly into the creation of this computerized world, and despite the intervening years there’s still something graceful about the look of the film. And so, despite TRON: Legacy being one of those films you hear about endlessly for two years before it finally arrives in theaters, I remained intrigued. This type of overwhelming ad campaign is a tenuous scenario for any filmmaker to deal with, the hype certain to both fill seats and raise expectations to nearly unachievable levels. An Avatar-sized budget, a score by Daft Punk, and the kind of franchise building we haven’t seen from Disney since Pirates, TRON: Legacy is quite evidently a BIG DEAL. So how is it? Well, that’s a complex question. In some ways this is pretty standard stuff, the kind of holiday fare kids and parents can munch popcorn to. In other ways, this is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen.
28 years after the original, TRON: Legacy follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and heir to the Encom throne. Sam is a genius and a loner; more interested in grieving his father’s disappearance than running the company he’s inherited. When a spectral page is sent to Kevin Flynn’s old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) from Flynn’s old arcade, and Sam goes to investigate, he ends up being digitized and absorbed into The Grid. Here he meets his father’s creation and nemesis, Clu, and learns the truth about his father’s disappearance and adoption of Quorra (Olivia Wilde). Here too, he finally grabs with both hands his own destiny…or something to that effect. Story wasn’t necessarily one of the film’s highest priorities.
In fact, let’s just get all the bad out of the way, shall we? Yes, the story and dialogue leave something to be desired. They’re certainly not as miserable as some people might have you believe, but they’re more often than not underdeveloped. It’s the action of TRON: Legacy that mesmerizes, and in order to keep the audience from looking at their watches when there’s no action actually happening, they would need to do far more with the quiet scenes then they do. There are extemporaneous characters the film would be fine without, like the annoyingly silly character of Clu’s deputy, and a cameo from Michael Sheen that, as much as I appreciated the effort, ends up just feeling overacted. Garrett Hedlund is, unfortunately, not as strong as I was hoping, at times feeling unsure of the character. This is truer towards the beginning of the film though, and by the end Sam actually settles in pretty nicely. Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn is fine, if perhaps a bit too Lebowski, but the effect they use to remove his years as the Clu character is strange looking and very clearly animated. It is, unfortunately, impossible not to notice whenever Clu is onscreen. Finally, the script contains far too much technobabble, including an extended monologue on the glory of the “Isos” close to the middle, which represents a fairly important plot point yet isn’t really explained in an understandable way. Like many science fiction films before it, TRON: Legacy has a tendency to use advanced and often undefined terminology to explain away a problem. These things are frustrating and kill any conversation about TRON: Legacy as a complete film, but in a way, they also don’t really matter.
Why, you ask, don’t these many issues detract from Director Joseph Kosinki’s first film? Because like Avatar, or Toy Story, or even Star Wars, TRON: Legacy is a visual effects game changer. It is simply a magnificent achievement in computer generated effects; a masterpiece in the creation of authentic environments. In general the film looks great, including the moments that don’t take place within a digitized world. But once you land on The Grid is when things really start to sparkle. For one thing, once Sam arrives properly in the computerized world, the film immediately gets to the action, with a lightbike sequence grinding the original TRON’s into the dust. This sequence is spectacular, and the immediacy with which you’re shown such arresting visuals is exciting not only for what it is, but for what it suggests. Because if they’re prepared to show you stuff this good early on, what must the finale be like? Yes, every moment of action in the film is awe-inspiring. It’s that kind of visual experience in which every frame has been lovingly sculpted, and really all you need is a high-res printout and a frame.
While the visual experience is undoubtedly the most impressive part of the film, the soundtrack deserves a bit of recognition as well. Obviously expectations are high for a Daft Punk score, and many fans were hoping this would be their follow up to 2005’s forgettable Human After All. While this is definitively not their follow up, this is an efficiently mesmerizing film score. From the first moment Sam Flynn cruises into frame on his black Ducati and the familiar Daft Punk electronica oscillates him in and around traffic, it seems a perfect fit. Somehow a combination of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Social Network soundtrack, and Hans Zimmer’s Inception score, this feels like an appropriately digitized version of a spectacular action film orchestration.
So TRON: Legacy is one of those bizarrely split films wherein the components of the product are markedly inconsistent, and the viewer must decide if he cares. There have been cases before where a film hasn’t performed that well in every aspect and I’ve thought mostly ill of it, which I suppose means my opinion here should be taken with a larger grain of salt than usual. But I’ll stand by my thoughts on TRON: Legacy. If nothing else, this is just a genuinely exciting experience to have in the theater. While you’re not necessarily moved by the story, there’s no denying that the action and music are visceral, and some of the best you’ll see in awhile. This is precisely the kind of movie that should be seen on the big screen, perhaps in 3D, with big, blaring speakers, and most probably, many, many times.